Have you seen this pattern in your children: they begin their school career in those early years full of excitement and motivation. They are brimming with enthusiasm and curiosity and can’t wait to learn new things. Then, as the years pass, their motivation seems to wane. By the time they reach middle school, it becomes more and more difficult to motivate them to keep learning, achieve good grades, and stay engaged with school work. You may wonder: “what happened to my enthusiastic, motivated learner?” Research suggests that this pattern of motivation is all too common among children. What’s going on? How can we understand our children better in order to foster motivation for learning? The fascinating relationship between motivation and achievement offers us some insight to guide our path.

The Dynamic Relationship of Motivation and Achievement

Researchers have long tried to tease apart the relationship between motivation and achievement. These two concepts are so inextricably linked that it’s difficult to understand how they influence each other. Like the age-old “chicken and the egg” question, motivation and achievement offer a similar circular concept. Most recently, scholars have determined that motivation and achievement most likely form a feedback loop in which they are continually influencing one another. As we saw in the findings above, young children are often inherently motivated to learn, which can often lead to high achievement. This achievement, therefore, further promotes motivation. It feels good to get high grades or score well on tests, and this itself often motivates children to keep pursuing their learning and explore new topics.   

Research across a range of topics reinforces this concept of a feedback loop between motivation and achievement. For example, in a study of reading achievement, the researchers found evidence of this reciprocal relationship between motivation and achievement. This feedback loop between motivation and achievement also seems to work in a negative direction as well. Some research has shown that when children lack motivation, this can result in low achievement as well. This finding was found to be especially true in relation to math and reading achievement.

Tips for Influencing Motivation in Children

Given the circular nature of the relationship between motivation and achievement, it begs the question of how parents might influence these factors so as to enhance our children’s academic performance. Are there outside forces that we might be able to influence so as to help increase our children’s motivation and achievement?

Parental Attention and Involvement: Not surprisingly, research points to the role of parents in helping maintain and increase children’s motivation, especially related to school. Studies have shown the role of parents’ attention and involvement with their children to be linked to greater academic motivation. One study found that both mothers’ and fathers’ attention predicted higher school motivation in children. Similarly, a study of children’s studies in STEM fields found that parent involvement played an important role in their intrinsic motivation to continue academic work in that area. 

It’s easy to see how parents might reinforce children’s motivation for academic study through fostering enthusiasm for the topics and encouraging children to seek out further learning in their area of interest. Thus, one area in which we can focus our attention with our own children is fostering their academic motivation through our interest in their lives and studies.

Learning Environment: Of course, most children do much of their learning at school, so the learning environment can impact motivation and achievement as well. The characteristics of the setting in which children are learning have been shown to significantly influence motivation in particular. When children feel supported, engaged, and interested in school, they are more likely to be motivated to continue learning and achieving. 

Although parents do not have complete control over their children’s learning environment, we can advocate for their needs and high-quality teaching. This might include discussing your child’s particular learning needs or interests with teachers, supporting teacher training, or advocating for smaller class sizes so your child’s learning can be optimal. 

Curiosity and Autonomy: At its most basic level, motivation is often fueled by curiosity. In our role as parents, we can foster children’s innate curiosity by allowing them to explore. At all stages of development, we can encourage our children to investigate the world around them and pursue learning about topics that interest them. Along with this pursuit to explore, often comes a desire to be autonomous and assert their actions in the world. Although we have to ensure their safety, we can also encourage children’s independence and agency in age-appropriate ways. As much as possible, allow children to lead their play and exploration. Encourage time spent outdoors exploring nature, pretend play, and the development of new games or ways to play with friends. All these seemingly simple activities help ignite their curiosity and motivate them to learn.

Children are born interested in the world and ready to engage with it. Over the years, however, this motivation to learn sometimes fades a bit. By intentionally focusing on their interests and cultivating learning environments that foster their creativity, we can re-ignite their passion and motivation for learning (which often leads to achievement).

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